It is a rare and alarming quality that bestows an actor with the puppetry skills to have a viewer truly at his mercy. Take French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim. Such is the sheer mastery of his performances that in any given scene – with the subtle curl of a smirk, caged eyes darting with furious desperation, or devastation writ across his brow – with the flip of a switch, admiration turns to stomach-churning unease, repulsion, or empathy.
During his blistering breakthrough, A Prophet, we see the actor’s face harden before our eyes as six years in prison takes him from naive small-time crook to criminal kingpin. In his seductive turn as globe-trotting serial killer Charles Sobhraj for true crime drama The Serpent, his beguiling warmth and hospitality envelops his victims before a stony stare flicks up like a switchblade in the most brutal of scenes.
Next up, Rahim steps into his extraordinarily tough portrayal of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay for 14 years in the critically-acclaimed drama The Mauritanian. The film is based on the experiences that the real Slahi chronicled in his shocking 2015 memoir Guantánamo Diary. As can be imagined, it is a visceral performance which delicately flits between hope, despair and elation – a swinging pendulum of emotion that grips the stomach of the viewer throughout the entirety of the film. It is a testimony to Rahim’s dedication to his craft that the actor insisted the torture scenes be as realistic as possible, requesting real shackles during filming, the cells to be kept freezing cold, and that he be waterboarded for real. It would have been “impossible” to have it any other way, he insists when we speak over Zoom. It is an important and altogether star-making role; one that has already earned him his first Golden Globe nomination, and is no doubt about to see him hit household name status.
We caught up with Rahim and discussed the life-changing two-year process of The Mauritanian, how he finally “caught” his portrayal of psychopath Charles Sobhraj in The Serpent, and how – next up – he’d loved to star in a Western…
Hi Tahar, congratulations on The Mauritanian, what drew you to telling the story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi?
When I read the script, I felt sad and angry, and that it was a story that needs to be told. I cried, which is very rare. I just wanted to be part of the people who were doing him justice. It was astonishing to discover Mohamedou and his philosophy, his will to forgive and his ability to put himself in the shoes of others.
You can see from the film, and also from your portrayal, that Mohamedou is this charismatic, engaging and positive person. How was it meeting him knowing everything he had been through?
I first wanted to read the book and do my research so I knew more about what happened there, also about Guantánamo and American justice. Then I met him on Skype because I was shooting The Serpent in Thailand and I was pleasantly surprised to see someone full of life, without resentment, or anger, and I was like ‘wow’.
Did you have any reservations taking on a role that is not only overtly political, but also physically and mentally demanding?
Not at all. You know when I read the title which was Guantánamo Diary at that time, I had a little hesitation. It lasted for less than a minute though. I had gotten used to being offered stereotypical parts from Hollywood, but then I thought ‘no, Kevin [Macdonald] is too clever for that.’ I know him, and he wouldn’t ever tell a story that I don’t want to see. And when I read the book I called him straight away and I said, ‘I’m in, I want to do it.’ Apart from the fact that it’s an important story, as an actor, this part is a gift, there’s so many layers, so many colours, so many challenges.
I read you lost more than twenty pounds to be in the role, and you learned two types of Arabic. How challenging was all of this?
Heavy! It was heavy! But I was excited, I worked a lot. I worked with my Arabic coach and my Hassaniya coach as well – which was the Mauritanian language – and we worked over and over and over, and for the torture scenes. I mean, I had to lose weight to physically match what Mohamedou looked like at that time, and plus putting myself as close as possible to his actual conditions helped me a lot to reach an unexpected emotional state.
I read that you asked for your cell to be kept freezing cold and real shackles to be used. Was it really integral for you to get into the exact mindset by implementing these physical conditions?
Yes, it’s always important. This time in particular, I couldn’t do it otherwise. Plus, when you think about it, why re-create when you can create? I mean, out of respect to Mohamedou, to the audience, to my director, I needed to find the authenticity, otherwise I couldn’t believe in what I was doing. It would have been impossible.
You were talking about how you cried after reading the book. Obviously the role was emotionally demanding and it was a two-year process bringing this film to life, how do you think it changed you as a person, and did it affect your psyche at all?
It was tough. There was a specific moment, a one scene when he starts to hallucinate, right? And he sees his mum in his cell.
Oh god, yes, it’s horrible.
This moment was the last day of shooting. I was exhausted. I couldn’t take it anymore, because we were supposed to shoot the scene two days ago and I felt like I was touching a sort of truth, so I was holding it and they kept on postponing the scene and I was like, ‘I can’t keep it anymore.’ So I went to Kevin and I said, ‘listen man, we’ve got to shoot.’ So we did it, and I almost saw my own mum. It was so strange because I lost my mum and Mohamedou did as well, so we had that in common. I could understand it. But it was strange. So I could only do one take, and then I collapsed.